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Why This Waste? Thoughts on Self-Control

By Dominic Robin

When the idea occurred to me, not too long ago, to sit down and write an essay, I welcomed it, not as a student who must, but as an adult who can. The distinction is important not only because it frames the idea as non-coercive, but also because it highlights something true: that at this moment, the now which describes my current state of writing, I am in a state not of work but of play. I am here because I want to be.

And yet, despite this simple truth, I did not write this essay — at least not for a long time — and I excused my neglect for two simple reasons. They are as follows: 1. I was too busy working, and 2. I was tired. It is around these two thoughts that I intend to draw the remainder of my conversation.

This “why” is best illustrated with a brief explanatory story. Recently, in connection with a passing foolishness I can no longer recall, I realigned my thoughts around an important realization: that in my desire to be clever, I had forgotten to be right. The truth of this idea has stuck with me since and has become a helpful maxim for me on several occasions. To be clever is good and, on occasion, even laudable, but it loses relevance when positioned in opposition to “truth,” which is a higher calling. Put differently, it's good to be competent but be sure you're being competent in the right direction. A very long road to nowhere is no more valuable than no road at all. And you probably had to cut down several trees to get there.

And thus, in the spirit of that initial discovery, I offer as the thesis of this essay a slightly amended version of the same thought, but you must pardon me if I replace the personal pronoun “I” with the far-too-broad and poorly defined pronoun “we." It goes as follows: Perhaps, when we think of self-control, we (more often than not) get it all wrong. Because in our attempt to control our heart rate, we forget to breath. In our search for peace, we forget to look. In our desire to live well, paradoxically, we often forget to what that even looks like. This is an essay about the beauty and sacrosanctity of idleness, but not idleness in its traditional sense. Rather it is a reclamation of idleness and a declamation of its inverse, artificial busyness. I can think of few ideas that have infected the mind of Western Christianity so covertly; we might as well have welcomed it in by the back door.

Part I

At the beginning of 2019, I began my annual tradition of choosing a topic and dedicating my year to that topic. 2019 represented my third year undertaking these "Great Project Lists" and my fourth list (I did two in 2018). In 2017, I targeted Central Florida centrally because it fit my life well. My then girlfriend (now wife) lived in Tampa, and I lived in Jacksonville, a meager (but not so meager) four hour drive. This meant that if we wanted to see each other (we did), we had to travel. Because of this, trips to several Florida cities became not just feasible but specifically strategically advantageous. 2018 followed, and — now married — we tackled two new major projects: Project Spain and Project Outdoors. Ambitious, perhaps, but several truly life changing opportunities blossomed out of these goals including the framework of my first second language and a three month stint overseas.

When 2019 came around, we tossed around several ideas. Cooking perhaps. Or art? For a while, we strongly considered Project Education Pedagogy -- boring, perhaps, to many, but a minor obsession of mine. Although each of these had their draw, we finally landed on a more general idea, a simple term with decidedly "un-simple" implications: self-control.

The idea occurred to me after a lesson on the Fruit of the Spirit. In addition to being a English instructor at the University of North Florida, I moonlighted as a Youth Director at a local church, and in one of our studies, we happened upon Galatians 5:22-23. It reads as follows: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and . . .” (CSB). And? And what? And there it was: self-control.

It’s not shocking that I forget self-control. In fact, as I’ve asked around, I've received several similar reactions. People remember love, and for good reason. The greatest of these is love. People also remember joy, peace, and patience. Self-control, however: Self-control is easy to forget, and not without some reason.

I’ve always been wary of words like “self-control.” It stinks of that display section in most bookstores stacked high not with literature, biography, nor science, history, or even DIYs but the worst of all worsts: Inspiration and Self Help. Rest assured, I plan no defense of that section with this essay. And yet, there it is, tacked onto the end next to words such as goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. Self-control. Lord help me. And so I set out to discover what self-control meant.

Please, do not misunderstand me. I, like many of you, do not struggle substantially with laziness. During my undergraduate years, I took upwards of 18 credit hours nearly every semester while working 15-20 hours. As a graduate student, I worked 40 hours per week while maintaining a full course load of three graduate seminar courses most semesters. I eat a fairly clean diet, can run a dozen miles without significant discomfort, and spend many hours a day reading. I am busy and staying so is not difficult for me.

But therein lies the coup de grâce, the challenge to my current paradigm: staying so is not difficult for me.

In his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell notes that “modern technique has made it possible to diminish enormously the amount of labor required to secure the necessaries of life for everyone." This point, while true in the 1930’s is particularly true now. Think, for example, the short cuts afforded by modern technology; machines alleviate much of the manual labor necessary to manufacture, sew, grow, test, calculate, wash, build, and store. If we desire, we need not even do much thinking or deciding at all: there are algorithms for that. And yet, as was true in Russell's time, we are no less busy now than we were before.

But surely Russell’s suggestion — “that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work” — cannot be true. Certainly (though I doubt Russell would care), it is not Biblical Take Proverbs 13:4: “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, while the soul of the diligent is richly supplied” (ESV). Or II Thessalonians 3:10b: “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (ESV). And yet, perhaps within that idea lies more wisdom than even Russell intended. In the following sections, I will suggest it to be so.

Part II: I Was Too Busy Working

Let us accept, for the moment, the validity of Russell’s premise: modern society needs not work as much as generation past to produce the same substance as years past. My coffee is harvested and ground for me, my clothes, almost literally, wash (and soon, I fervently pray, fold) themselves, I do not sew my own clothes, build my own house, or grind my own grain (except, perhaps on days I feel particularly "earthy"). So why am I so busy?

Psychologist Ernest Becker suggests an answer. In "The Denial of Death," he paints a petty picture of humanity, that of frantic animals, terrified by the idea of death, scurrying about in an attempt to build something transcendent, something real, something that distracts from the inevitable impending doom that awaits. Becker sums it up succinctly in this way: “Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” It is the modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel, humankind’s attempt to build, literally or figuratively, “a tower that reaches to the heavens.” Why? In the words of the inhabitants of Babel, “[to] make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4, ESV). The same logic seems to apply today.

So, again I ask: “why so busy?” Succinctly: because I want to be. But that is an interesting thought. Indeed, it is precisely here that much of our modern image of self-control crumbles. Consider: if self-control implies a denial of self (put inversely, a striving against the capitulation of self to its natural state, that of deceit, desperately wicked beyond all knowing) than that which comes naturally must not be self-control at all. I am chasing a phantom menace, a cloud receding into the distance faster than I can possibly follow. We are stacking stones, one on top of the other, hoping for heaven, content to babel away in the raggedly specific discourses we’ve mastered to describe our particular disciplines. Once this reality becomes manifest, another, more sinister one materializes behind it.

We credit Charles Baudelaire with the famous maxim, "the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist." Pardon my amendment, but the concept applies equally well here; I believe that the second finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that his own things are the things of God, worthy of worship, praise and glory. For here is the truth: generally, we don’t see anything wrong with our relative states of “busyness.” We even have the damnable gall to praise each other for it. What a hard worker. What an honest, capable, and responsible man of God. What a provider. And so, as I return to the question, chastened — “why did it take so long to begin this essay?” — and am struck by the curious insufficiency of my answer — “because I was too busy working” — and forced to revise: “because I didn’t care enough.” And that is a good start.

In many ways, “because I was too busy working” leads directly into my second excuse. To bring in a modern example, it is all too easy to arrive at home, to flash on a screen, and to disappear mentally and physically into a comfortable sofa. But this event cannot be separated binarily from its cause. Truly, how much of the human life wavers between these two states: 1. exhausting oneself with strenuous work, mental or physical and 2. recovering — gently: alone (or effectively so), idle. But then, as anyone who has experienced too long a break knows, we grow tired (note the word “tired”) of our idleness, we grow restless (rephrased, one might say that we want "less rest"), and we return to our work with a zeal. And so the loop continues, rest both a beautiful respite and necessary evil, a mountain to be overcome primarily so that we might tackle yet more mountains. It's a means to an end. But to what end? And more importantly, at what cost?

Part III: An Alternative

When I began, I noted an essay by Bertrand Russell in which he argues against the idea of work for work’s sake. I applied that to my own situation, and am now here, discontentedly convinced that I create goals to make myself feel relevant and then use tiredness as an excuse for indulging in various "vegetative" states. However, I also know that absolute leisure is not the answer. That, at least, is clear. So, what is the answer? Well, that is a big question, and one that I do not feel qualified to answer. At least, not for everyone all at once. I can, I think, give some insight into my own situation, however, and the answer lies, curiously, in the act in which I am now engaged.

And so I must return once more to my original question: why, when I decided to write my essay, did it take so long for me to actually do so? And the answer seems to be that, in my mind, to do so would be to engage in that greatest of evils, what we call wastefulness. To use a day writing, that cannot be, in apostolic terms, the “good that I would.” I must prioritize work, build a career, provide for myself and for my wife and for our future children. These are, in the end, all good and worthy things. But are they the end?

I have recently asked a similar question to my composition and rhetoric students. As I teach the importance of rhetorical analysis, I must continuously stress that analysis for analysis sake is a useless task. To note that a subject does something in a text has no more use in the world than my noting that a wall is blue or a whale is a mammal and not a fish. Rather, analysis is the application of ideas to reality and then the synthesis of those ideas into a coherent narrative that creates value. Rhetorical analysis for rhetoric’s sake, working for working’s sake, resting for working’s sake, and working for resting’s sake. But just as I do not live to analyze, so also do I not live to work. And certainly I do not live to rest. I live for a higher calling, namely to love the Lord my God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my mind and to love my neighbor as myself.

And then, with this in mind, a new reality strikes me, that in writing this essay I’ve done more today than often I do in an entire day of "achieving." I do not mean to suggest that my goals are worthless or even that I do not enjoy them. My job at the university, for example, is of great worth, and I enjoy it immensely. But it is not the end, it is the beginning. And every time I choose busyness over depth, I sacrifice meaning.

Jesus said to pick up your cross, but in our modern eyes, a cross is glamorous. It is something we hang about our necks, place on our walls, or stain into our glass. It is a symbol of victory. But, in Christ’s time, the cross was not glamorous at all. So, what if taking up one’s cross means sacrificing the glamour of stability, of the acceptance of the community of Christians who prize a hard working professional but fail to value she who sacrifices work to meditate for two hours, to ponder for another, to write for a moment, and to fast, alone, without recognition or acclaim.

In the United States, a dry bank account often implies laziness. But to share one’s earning, or even to prioritize time with others so that the earnings do not come — that is not laziness. In short, self-control must be something more than working hard. Rather, it is the necessary and daily decision to die to self, that is, to conceptualize others as more valuable than oneself (and one's goals), and to do so knowing that you will be criticized for it, often by your own Christian community. And when we are tempted to criticize others for what we may perceive to be laziness, we would do well to remember the story of Mary, she of the alabaster flask (and, perhaps, she who rejected Martha's busyness to sit at the feet of Jesus). I offer it with only a few preliminary comments. Note the indignation of the disciples -- "Why this waste?", the criticism of the Pharisees (see Luke’s account for specific details on the Pharisees reaction), and ultimately the blessing of Christ.

The story begins innocuously at Bethany in the house of Simon the Leper (Matt. 26:6). One can feel the calm, the tranquility, the peace before the storm, the specific moments before Judas' betrayal. But the tranquility is broken by a women, Mary, she of the "alabaster flask of very expensive ointment." In Mark's account, she breaks the jar and here, there's some unclarity. Did she pour it on his head? On his feet? Perhaps both? The story is recorded in all four gospels but with some differences in detail. However, in each account, the reaction is clear. In Matthew's account, the author records that "the disciples saw it, [and] were indignant, saying, 'Why this waste?" Matthew offers more insight into their thoughts: "For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the the poor" (vs. 8-9). In some accounts, the Pharisees grumble as well. Matthew was kind; he attributes the grumbling to the general group of disciples. John is less anonymous. Who is it that is so concerned about the "large sum" that should have been given to the poor? Judas Iscariot. He said it "because he was a thief," John writes. Thieves care a lot about minimizing waste.

But Jesus steps in. "'Why do you trouble the woman?'" he asks. The rest deserves full quotation without interruption: "For she has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.'"

In short, Jesus says this: While you see things economically, I see them symbolically. And there's value in symbols.

There was always value in symbols and there always will be value in symbols.

That's rebuking. And comforting. And just a little bit intimidating.

Why this waste, indeed.

Full text from Matthew 26:6-13 (ESV)

6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”


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